An ‘echo chamber’ is a phenomenon in which a person is exposed to ideas, people, facts, or news that adhere to or are consistent with a particular political or social ideology, while different or competing views are censored, disallowed or otherwise under-represented.
‘Echo chamber’ is frequently used as a pejorative epithet about another’s shortcomings. The alternative phrase, ‘filter-bubble’, is more commonly used in academia or as a self-referential term to describe one’s own blind spots. Use of the former tends to assign blame elsewhere, leaving listeners to think you are unwilling to critically reflect on your own actions. Political conversations can be touchy enough topics at the best of times; wiser then to not slip up over avoidable connotational mishaps. The last thing we wish to do is give off the wrong impression as to our intentions before we’ve got our feet off the ground. Granted, the title ‘echo chambers’ was more captivating within focus groups than erring on the side of civility with ‘filter-bubbles’.
Wheat from the chaff
The world as we know it is but a mere reflection of our own reality. This is an unsettling notion however one takes it. Facebook, among other social media giants, have torn apart the social fabric. We are left with a post-social-media, dystopian landscape; occupied by a generation who consume media indiscriminately. They don’t stop and think, nor do they reflect critically on whether what they see and hear is the truth, absorbing content that is not neutral but instead carries an agenda; however nuanced it may be.
Confirming facts is simply too time consuming, we get it. It is more expedient to jump on whatever click-bait or post stirs the emotions. Facebook and Instagram are ego fulfilling. They absorb reality, offering the user a chance to live this filtered paradise they share online. What inadvertently follows when the façade shatters into a million pieces is an abyss of self-loathing and resentment.
Progressively, a hostility of devaluation based on an insufficient number of online followers does little for mental wellbeing. Where the criteria for self-worth is a falsely cropped, edited and filtered ‘catfish’ vision of perfection, we open our self-esteem, and by extension emotional sanity to the world. If that doesn’t sound scary to you, then I don’t know what would. For what reason do we allow ourselves and our friends to subject themselves to these hollow highs and inconsolable lows on an emotional rollercoaster? Is it really to shelter our fragility, buttressing weak and shallow egos? Maybe it is to blend in with the crowd. An adult with greater perspective may be able to step back from this quicksand, but what of highly impressionable teenagers?
Insidiously sinister reward loops are psychologically traumatic when the reassurance chain of external validation breaks. Moreover, comparisons made on a day to day basis are damaging and fickle. Layered ‘enhancements’ to ‘dog faces’ of snapchat breed a culture of narcissistic filtered realities, normalising hedonism and brashness. A perverse androgynous mediocrity abounds.
Days and nights spent consuming media, the average teenager in Britain spends 9 hours a day.
To add to the concerning time teenagers spend engaging with media, it is worth noting the more insidious activities that can thrive in the shadows with all this ‘spare time’. Social media, unlike other aspects of life, lacks any such handbook besides experience. It is this void that allows for activities we would consider shameful or reprehensible in the real world to thrive and simmer online. It arises in the grooming of vulnerable users, the ‘like-for-like’ or ‘selfie mania’ cultures, sharing empty sympathy feeds on a famine in Sudan or bomb victims in Syria to assuage the conscience, offensive criticisms, and dishing out abuse or self-righteousness as a keyboard warrior. Even something so seemingly inconsequential as deleting inappropriate posts on Instagram that don’t score enough likes. These all feed, in varying degrees, a vacuous, conformist and reciprocal agenda.
Combine shorter attention spans of younger generations with a selective media indoctrination and you have a dangerous concoction: a cultural memory that is practically non-existent. Take the almost extinguished cultural memory in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, as Rey believes Jedi and The Republic were mere legend; when only a few decades had passed. Knowledge is not considered as desirable or admirable when everyone has Google at their fingertips. Why then, would anyone need commit anything to memory anymore?
We live in a cram-culture. Interactions have changed, and social interaction in person becomes an extension of our online personas rather than the augmentation and enhancement of our everyday lives in the real world. Meaningful relationships are built on in-person interactions and shared experiences, not through indelicate and rash instant messaging. The empty Snapchat feeds are metaphorical of the superficial interactions and communication that disappear forever with the flick of a finger. A world of expediency, isolation and triviality.
The original vision of smartphones revolutionising communication and connectivity, however, couldn’t have been further divorced from today’s reality. We were promised a realm of perfect symmetry in knowledge, where information was shared freely. But now, the algorithms are so strong, and know so much about you, that they only give you what they know you will like. You have become trapped in an echo chamber where all you see and hear is you.
“media is the most powerful entity on earth…they control the minds of the masses” Malcom X
It would be too intense to detach ourselves from the grip of the system. Instead, we remain in denial of the magnitude, internalising the reality presented to us. You see this article via your social media; be it Facebook, Instagram, Linked In or Twitter. You think you are already aware of much of this message; and yet, you come to a realisation. On introspection, one can appreciate the pure objectivity of social reproduction, by the global web experience curation, has us so immersed, that it doesn’t care whether we know, because there isn’t jack squat we can do about it. Alexei Yurchak, a Soviet writer, coined the term ‘hypernormalisation’ to describe a position where you were so much a part of the system that it was impossible to see beyond it. Our revealed internet searches, social media and news feeds all compound the mirage of autonomous expression.
A Tailormade Web
Filter bubbles are populated by the things which most compel you to click. The problem lies within the set of things you are most likely to click on (sex, gossip or fashion) are not the set of things we need to know. Filters create individual universes around each user, for instance, Facebook, the primary news source for Brits, reveals progressive feeds for a liberally inclined audience. Eli Pariser, author of ‘The Filter Bubble’, delves into the invisible labyrinth of algorithmic, smart-learning that predicts what you are most likely to click on. A personalisation of the internet controls and limits the information we consume and share. Wikipedia, despite your old teacher’s lamentations, is one of the only notable exceptions to this ‘personalisation’ phenomenon incumbent within our online profiles. The era of ‘authoritative’ and consistent results is long since over.
Confirmation bias is here to stay. People prefer to remain unburdened by conflicting world views. So perhaps, remaining reflective on the content we see is difficult if we are brought up unquestioning and conducive to reproducing the filters that shelter us from objectionable or unsettling exterior realities – those antagonistic to our own comfortable world view. We may be wholly unaware of the extent of manipulation and coercion that enters our news feeds, for instance, why question a ‘good’ friend over a post that you share common ground and mutual interests with?
In a personalized world, we will increasingly be typed and fed only news that is pleasant, familiar, and confirms our beliefs-and because these filters are invisible, we won't know what is being hidden from us. Our past interests will determine what we are exposed to in the future, leaving less room for the unexpected encounters that spark creativity, innovation, and the democratic exchange of ideas.
This author believes the primary purpose of creative media and editing is to extend the horizons of what people are interested in and know. Giving people what they want is easy, but it is unsatisfying to be shown the same content over and over.
From Open Dissemination to Fake News
The internet’s original purpose was an open platform for disseminating ideas. The era of clickbait headlines and news feeds plague our social media pages, often shared and forwarded by our contacts who haven’t taken the time and consideration to reflect on whether what they have just seen, heard or read is, in fact, true.
Fact checking is important, not just on social media but in the tabloid and broadcast media as well - because everybody makes mistakes, and some people are just flat out trying to brainwash you into believing something. Maintaining multiple sources and an inquisitive nature is the best way to remain vigilant in today’s information war world.
Free Speech clashes with Safe Spaces
Where such clashes between contradicting world views do emerge, we often either witness obfuscation, as America does to Russia with sanctions, embargoes and alienation in the international community for its belligerence. On the other hand, controversial social media posts are war grounds for vitriolic contestation between opposing ideologies. This leaves universities and the spectacle of ‘no-platforming’ as the true stomping grounds for contestation and conflict in recent memory.
‘You stop explaining yourself when you realize that people only understand from their level of perception.’
When the liberal left of academia met the no bounds to free speech, deliberately antagonistic and provocative right, hell was bound to break loose. The alt-right demanded ‘no-holds barred’ to extinguish ‘safe-spaces’. ‘Victimised’ groups in society are defended by the liberally-inclined majority without question. The alt-right cry foul play and claim ‘crocodile tears’. We are left with a stalemate tension in discourse. University Student’s Unions often act as arbitrators and side with those demanding ‘offensive opinion’ be quashed and 'safe spaces' offered to shelter sensitive individuals. From the outside it appears as though liberals are parading and policing conservative thought, pushing their agendas through the weight of their institutions.
What was once a place where free speech could be championed and defended by impassioned advocates; is now instead, streamlining debate into a more conveniently one-sided, inclusive, but narrower worldview.
To reach an impasse where the contradicting parties’ do not engage with one another because they are incapable of understanding each other is problematic for society to grow and move forwards. Communication is left to break down and bridges remain burned. No progressive discourse or debate can take place without being shouted down or fear of ‘triggering’ the other party.
The media often presents students at the forefront of this cavalier vanguard of the oppressed and belittled. The right-wing may wish to debate whether new genders exist, but are shouted down as ‘bigots’ or characteristic of the ‘patriarchy’. Jim Carrey once said, ‘You stop explaining yourself when you realise that people only understand from their level of perception.’ Condescending terms like ‘liberal snowflake’ have emerged to critique, rather than listen to, the fragility of younger, ‘entitled’ and ‘lazy’ generations.
A system wherein one cannot criticise openly without being subject to labelling or derogatory condescension is concerning. It allows protest to snuff out any means of productive dialogue that is averse to the protester's world views.
The liberal bias in academia is particularly encompassing as its own filter bubble. Plugs are pulled on speeches which inadvertently empowers vitriol to simmer in the background and ‘no-platformed’ speakers to whinge in the shadows. Those speakers then glean greater publicity than they otherwise would have under conditions of reasoned debate. Caricatures of Milo Yiannopoulos; leading to riots in California and riling the campus left of Berkeley; are counterintuitive and counterproductive. This phenomenon is fuelled by the media we consume and the individuals we choose to associate and spend time with.
Milo’s complains that he wants people to talk about issues that he feels are underrepresented or considered taboo, believing nothing should be off limits to address in public discourse. This stance, naturally then, includes transgender or non-gender binary norms as being up for debate as to whether we acknowledge their claims as valid or simply more nuanced expressions of psychological dissonance.
Society is polarised and gridlocked by such issues. Exposing opposing world views to one another becomes too troublesome, allowing the beliefs to fester and simmer in their own bubbles.
The outcome – a warped vision of our own reflection – in that we only ever see, experience and feel is variegations of our own cosy world view enveloping us.
A civilisation with technology intended to liberate and provide a platform for participants from different viewpoints to engage has descended into the mire of groupthink and conformity.
Decisions and judgement calls have been advanced, but the perspicacity with which those thoughts are arrived at has not.
For the age of communication to succeed, the shattering of the echo chambers needs to be decisive – otherwise we are left in the words of Malcolm X, to “envy the blind man, for it helps him to see clearly”. TMM